Will Detroit Save Its Kids or Bureaucracy?

Senior Fellow Newt Gingrich
Senior Fellow
Newt Gingrich
Recently, on "Fox News Sunday," as an example of why entrenched bureaucratic systems don't work, I pointed to the Detroit Public Schools as the worst big city school system in the country. The result was uproar--a response indicating that the bureaucracies were preparing to dig deeper trenches.

Yet, I was not giving my personal opinion. I was reporting the results of an independent study funded by the Gates Foundation. It asserted the Detroit school system graduates only one-fourth of its entering freshmen on time, placing Detroit dead last on its list.

No matter how you measure it, the Detroit Public Schools continues to fail the children it is supposed to be serving. This denies students the opportunity to participate in the information age and hurts Detroit's ability to attract world-class jobs.

I've even suggested rewarding students in the poorest neighborhoods by paying them if they get a "B" or better in math and science.

"An American Failure"

But this failure is not just Detroit's failure. It is an American failure. When American children are being cheated out of the education needed to succeed and an American city is allowed to decline while its leaders refuse to confront the failure, it should concern every American.

This human tragedy extends well beyond the schools. The New York Times reported that an African-American male who drops out of high school faces a 72 percent unemployment rate in his 20s and a 60 percent possibility of going to jail by his mid-30s. The Detroit bureaucracy now presides over a school system whose black male students are more likely to go to jail than go to college.

While city officials have been pointing to a renaissance since 1977, the record has shown fleeing populations, rising unemployment, declining wages and worsening schools. In 1950, Detroit had a population of 1.8 million people. Today, it has been more than cut in half, estimated at less than 900,000. In 1950, Detroit had the highest median income of any major city in the country. Today, it has plummeted to 66th out of 68 on this list.

This bureaucracy is so focused on protecting its monopoly, it turned down a $200 million offer from a Metro Detroit philanthropist to help high school students learn.

Faced with such appalling failure, why would the Detroit bureaucracy be so aggressive in defending itself? And why would it be so unwilling to adopt bold changes to improve its performance?

It could be that the Detroit school system is the single largest employer in the city, followed by the city government. Of Detroit's 25 largest employers, state, county and city governments provide 40 percent of the jobs.

What's Bureaucracy's Goal?

These numbers raise a critical question: What is the purpose of our government bureaucracies? Clearly, we have a fundamental disagreement about how to measure success, and it goes right to the heart of the issue.

If the purpose of the Detroit school system is to provide jobs for members of a unionized bureaucracy, pay them well and pay them on time, then Detroit's school system is a stunning success. If this is the primary purpose of the bureaucracy, Detroit may very well be the most successful school district in the nation.

If, however, the purpose of the school system is to provide Detroit's children with an education, the knowledge, the tools and the motivation to succeed in the real world, a prerequisite to prosperous, productive communities, then Detroit's bureaucratic schools are an abysmal failure.

There is ample evidence of what works in education, but the bureaucracy has systematically ignored all of it. The innovations include merit-based pay; increasing teacher-to-student ratios; revamping union rules to reward the best teachers; bonuses and incentives for new teachers; charter schools; and offering parents a coupon that allows them to send their children to the school that works best for their children and not the bureaucracies.

I've even suggested rewarding students in the poorest neighborhoods by paying them if they get a "B" or better in math and science.

Ultimately, Detroiters must decide what is in the best interests of their children and the future of their city. They can decide to accept business as usual, or they can demand real change.

But real change requires real change, not new rhetoric while doing more of the same old thing. Propping up the failed past at the expense of future generations leads to prison and poverty vouchers for too many of our children.

The time for excuses is over. The crisis is not about money. The crisis is a failure of responsibility, accountability, honesty, transparency and determination to protect the children from the bureaucracies that are crippling their lives. Who will the people of Detroit save--their failing bureaucracies or our American children?

Newt Gingrich is a senior fellow at AEI.

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